rip curl

The search for surfing’s soul

In Feature by Peter GearinLeave a Comment

The future of iconic Australian surfwear brand Rip Curl continues to ride on the endless summer legend.

Surfing is awash with classic storytelling. The world saw this recently when Australia’s world surfing champion Mick Fanning retired from the sport, inspiring many stories of his outstanding (and death-defying) career. It led to an animated video of his life from Red Bull – how many sportspeople can claim to have one of those by the time they’re 36?

Surfing has been in the storytelling game for decades. The legend of the bronzed Aussies packing their mates, boardies and surfboards in the Kombi and heading to the coast is entrenched in Australian culture. It’s wrapped up in the idea that life was made for adventure and surfers are helpless in their lifelong search for the perfect wave.

Just as this endless search is part of surfing folklore, so is the relentless pursuit of brands to associate themselves with it. This started way back – before even the late Bruce A. Brown’s The Endless Summer became more than a cult movie hit when it was released in 1966. Made for $50,000, The Endless Summer grossed $33 million worldwide.

Brown’s movie-making career began with a film called Slippery When Wet, which debuted at Orange Coast College in California in 1959. The movie, shot on location in southern California and on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, attempted to describe the connection between the sun, the surf and the human desire to conquer the waves.

According to a 1967 article in the Los Angeles Times, Brown served two years in the US Navy in Hawaii. He agreed to return to the island state to film surfing footage as a promotion for his friend Dale Velzy’s surfing store in San Clemente, California. In 1956, Velzy gave Brown $5000 to buy camera equipment and fly five surfers to Hawaii to shoot a movie.

The resulting film was Slippery When Wet – surfing’s first full-length branded movie. It had no dialogue – just Brown’s voice-over narration describing the Hawaiian locations and surfing action. After completing the film, Brown couldn’t afford a soundtrack and was forced to narrate the film live at screenings for high school and college audiences.

Surfing promos are a little more sophisticated now. Surfing brands pump millions into creating a vibe that buffs and shines the “endless summer” ethos. Publishers such as Red Bull understand the entertainment value of showing the world’s top surfers pulling tricks on some of the world’s most exciting surf breaks. Sun, sea, dramatic locations, acrobatics, danger, half-naked muscular bodies … it’s a winning formula.

Things, however, haven’t been all that easy for surf brands over the past decade. Since the global financial crisis, the bottom lines of the “big three” – Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Billabong – have taken a pounding. They have been hit by gnarly competition from non-surfwear businesses and, in the case of publicly listed Quiksilver and Billabong, questionable expansions into other markets and brands. They also grew the number of bricks-and-mortar stores at what seems to have been an unsustainable rate.

Even worse for the big three was the kids began to think the brands were becoming “daggy”, with many Aussies preferring Adidas or Nike gear. A Roy Morgan Research study found between 2007 and 2016, the proportion of Aussie kids who thought Rip Curl as “cool” fell from 33 per cent to 18 per cent. Billabong’s fall was even more alarming – from 46 per cent to 14 per cent within a decade.

The brands have tried to fight back by tapping into their surfing heritage, using world-class surfers as ambassadors. Their goal has been to nurture the cool surfing “vibe” established by people like Bruce Brown and his “endless summer” idyll to remind young and old of their antecedents and credibility.

“That idea of adventure, looking for and surfing good waves, having a few beers and a good time at night and then getting up the next day and doing it again … that’s how we lived our lives.”Rip Curl founder Brian Singer

Rip Curl established the concept of “The Search” as part of its brand communications in the 1980s. “In the beginning, The Search was expressed in the actions of two young surfers, Claw and Brian, and their personal quest for a lifestyle that allowed them to surf and live by the coast,” says Rip Curl at the tail of its homepage for The Search. “Rip Curl is a product of The Search.”

The story goes that The Search concept was “the best way to define what it meant to be part of Rip Curl”. It was developed by “Claw and Brian” – otherwise known as Rip Curl founders Doug Warbrick and Brian “Sing Ding” Singer – who began shaping surfboards off Torquay in Victoria in 1969. Within a year or two, Claw and Brian were making wetsuits and these newfangled things called “boardshorts”. Rip Curl is still privately owned and still has its HQ in Torquay.

Starting with a series of surfing films by Sonny Miller in the 1990s starring world champions Tom Curren and Damien Hardman, Rip Curl evolved the concept to take in events, products and a website devoted to the cause. Curren appears in a recent instalment, spending a week with Hawaiian Mason Ho looking for waves off an island in the North Pacific that was hit by Hurricane Irma. The social-media video comes with show notes on the website, offering optimism and timeless wisdom:

“And at the end of the day, who knows what’s coming? Irma’s nasty niece could appear, or Kim Jong-un might end up getting his really big slingshot out, and God help us if him and Donald Duck really get into it. Us plebs can’t do much about it, so we may as well surf, and get as much life and love in as we can. Why not work a bit less? Go on that surf trip; chase that girl; throw that party; give freely of yourself. Go and Search.”

Another beautifully produced Search adventure (released in 2017) features Luke Hynd and his mate Kipp Caddy negotiating some incredible waves and killer wildlife somewhere in south-east Asia. It’s called No Sudden Movements.

One of the enduring joys of The Search is that Rip Curl chooses not to reveal the movie locations. Well-travelled and sharp-eyed surfers might know a specific right-hander as well as they know their sister, but most of us are left to dwell on what the precise spot could be. It’s a policy that helps keep these great surfing sites for the lucky locals, not surf-hungry (nor selfie-obsessed) tourists.

Curren says The Search concept is simple, and allows “Rip Curl to enjoy an age-old surfing philosophy which by and large seemed to have been forgotten”. Hardman says “we all lived The Search in some form, Rip Curl formalised it”. He says the early Search trips were “disorganised, rough and raw and many of the voyages were based on myth and legend, but no matter the outcome – dream trip or disaster – they were all insane adventures”.

Co-founder Singer says on The Search website that the concept ethos – and the way his company came about – was (and remains) authentic. “That idea of adventure, looking for and surfing good waves, having a few beers and a good time at night and then getting up the next day and doing it again … that’s how we lived our lives.”

It’s also on the back of these adventures that Rip Curl sells it vision … as well as its wetsuits, bikinis and boardies.

Links & references

Rip Curl’s The Search site

LA Times’ obituary of Bruce Brown

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